Focus on diverse religious cultures across the globe, from ancient times to modern.
Religious studies prepares students for living in a religiously complex world by helping them to understand the diversity of religious traditions past and present, to gauge their impact on people’s behavior, and to explore their specific contributions to personal, communal and global well-being.
The study of religion requires students to use both analytical and imaginative intellectual skills in understanding sacred texts, oral traditions, symbolic objects, rituals and ways of life. It encourages students to connect religion to real life issues and to formulate their own judgments. Religious studies is an interdisciplinary field that includes historical research, reading and writing about texts, sociological investigation, cultural studies, philosophical inquiry and the arts.
Religious studies at Albright focus on the interpretation of diverse religious cultures across the globe, from ancient times to modern. The department offers specialized courses in biblical studies, Christianity, Asian religions, American religions, native American traditions, religion and popular culture, Latin American religions, Judaism, Islam and religious perspectives on women and ecology.
“Albright has instilled within me a need for connecting and not being afraid to cross boundaries.” — Jazer Willis ’22
The Department of Religious Studies prepares students for living in a religiously complex world by helping them to understand the diversity of religious traditions past and present. Our track record is impressive:
- 100% of Albright religious studies students who apply are accepted to graduate school
- 100% of Albright religious studies/secondary education students pass the PRAXIS exam
Student Goals and Learning Outcomes
Religious studies prepares students for living in a religiously complex world by helping them to understand the diversity of religious traditions past and present, to gauge their impact on people’s behavior, and to explore their specific contributions to personal, communal and global well-being. The study of religion requires students to use both analytical and imaginative intellectual skills in understanding sacred texts, oral traditions, symbolic objects, rituals and ways of life. It encourages students to connect religion to real life issues and to formulate their own judgments. Religious studies is an interdisciplinary field that includes historical research, reading and writing about texts, sociological investigation, cultural studies, philosophical inquiry and the arts.
To help students achieve these goals, courses in the Religious Studies department, alongside general studies outcomes, are also designed to achieve one or more of the following learning outcomes:
Students will learn:
- The basic texts, traditions, and practices of the world’s religions
- How religion, culture, and history all shape and influence one another; and how religions change across history and geography.
- How religions shape individual values, actions, and ethics.
- A general introduction to the methods and theories of modern religious studies scholarship, including interpretive methods.
- The basics of religious studies research including how to discern the difference between academic and faith-based sources; and how to write a religious studies paper.
The department wants majors and co-majors in the field of Religious Studies to be able to understand and produce scholarly discourse in religion. Each major is required to complete a junior and senior seminar in religious studies. Junior and senior religious studies majors will be able, in that seminar, to integrate the 5 basic goals and objectives in order to:
- Describe constructively and accurately how religion shapes the decisions people make and enables them to maintain long-lasting meaning and structure in their lives; describe critically how religion functions constructively (functional and phenomenological theories of religion)
- Demonstrate how they would address these issues through contextual analyses of sacred texts (oral or written), ritual systems, and symbolic material artifacts; show how these varied forms of evidence sustain particular cultural belief systems and shape the cognitive and emotional responses of people in diverse settings (historical, ritual, and literary theories)
Major in Religious Studies
The religious studies major requires thirteen courses, at least ten courses in religious studies beyond the general studies requirement. Majors are also permitted to take three related courses (beyond general studies) in the areas of philosophy, history, literature, the arts or the social sciences. Although there are no “core” courses, majors are expected to take courses from a diversity of areas in religious studies. Upperclass majors must take a 300-level course and senior majors must take REL 491, in which they are expected to present a senior thesis or project interpreting an issue in the study of human religion and culture from the appropriate methodological perspectives.
• REL 491
The department welcomes students who wish to pursue interdisciplinary work in conjunction with religious studies through either a combined major or an individualized study program. Combined majors are required to take seven religious studies courses, beyond general studies, including a 300-level course in religious studies and REL 491. The department especially encourages students to consider interdisciplinary work in areas such as: religion and philosophy, religion and human culture, religion and human behavior, religion and literature, religion and communication, religion and law, or religion and the arts. More information on how such programs might be structured is available from the Religious Studies Department.
A minor in religious studies consists of five courses. Religious studies is a broad and interdisciplinary field, so students will be able to craft the content of their minor depending on their interest. Combined majors are required to take:
One 100 or 200-level religious studies course
One 300-level religious studies course
Three other religious studies courses
More information is available from the Religious Studies Department.
Although pre-theological students don’t have to major in religious studies, the study and practice of religion is vital to their growth and maturation during college and is an integral part of their preparation for seminary. Working together with the College chaplain, campus religious organizations and the wider religious community in Reading, the Religious Studies Department seeks to encourage, counsel and assist pre-theological students in their personal and vocational journeys of faith.
Understanding the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible
A course designed to introduce the student to the Old Testament, also called the Tanak and the Hebrew Bible. The focus of the course is on the history of the nation of Israel and the way in which Israelite literature, laws, theology and religious practices developed in the Near Eastern environment. The course also provides background for understanding the subsequent development of Christianity and its beliefs. Emphasis is on reading the biblical text. General Studies Foundations-Humanities
Understanding the New Testament
A critical reading of the New Testament documents through which the early Christians articulated their faith, beliefs, and actions in response to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Special attention is given to the historical and social settings in which Christianity emerged and developed. Students focus on the distinctive purpose and main content of each document, using modern historical-critical methods of New Testament interpretation. General Studies Foundations-Humanities
Understanding Judaism, Christianity and Islam
An examination of the major forms of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, including Traditional and Reform Judaism; Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity; and Sunni and Shiite Islam. Each tradition is studied from the perspective of what it means to be a member of that community of faith. Brief attention is given to historical origins, traditional beliefs, forms of worship and religious expression, and contemporary problems facing each community. General Studies Connections-Humanities
Religions of India, China and Japan
A study of the major living religions and spiritual practices of India, China and Japan. The emphasis is on the origins and development of such traditions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism and Taoism. The impact that these traditions have had upon culture and how they have dealt with issues of spiritual meaning and formation is emphasized. General Studies Foundations-Humanities
Introduction to Classical Mythology
This course will be a survey of the stories of the gods and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome. We will focus primarily on approaching these documents as literary works, but will also examine how they were interpreted and how they functioned within the rituals and practices of Classical religions. Selections of mythology (Homer’s writings, the plays of Euripides, the poems of Ovid, etc.) will be read in English translation. While we will spend some time looking at how these myths and sacred tales have affected later Western art, philosophy and literature, we will primarily examine these myths within their ancient religious, literary, political and social context. General Studies Foundations-Humanities
“What is Religion?”
This course explores questions regarding the general nature of religious activity and expression, rather than concentrating on a particular religious tradition. It examines the conceptual, ritual, oral, and symbolic forms by which people from various cultures have experienced religious meaning in their everyday lives and become participants in an enduring order and destiny. It suggests how such ordinary areas of life as rites of passage, healing activities, economic and domestic productivity, patterns of social deference, and interpersonal and ecological exchanges often work as microcosmic expressions of a religious imagination and creative power. General Studies Foundations-Humanities
Asia on Film
This course gives students the opportunity to interact with Asian cultural experience through the study of Asian films. Films include those made within Asian countries and also Western films made about Asia. Students are asked to explore the possible layers of meaning in these films, including Asian cultural life, character development, religious and philosophical influences, symbolism and cinematic vision. The class includes both the viewing and discussion of each film to facilitate a deep exploration of interpretation and critique. General Studies Connections-Global-Humanities
Japanese Religion and Popular Culture
This course will survey the varied expressions of Shinto, Buddhist, and Confucian values and ideals in the form of story, image, theater, sports, and mass media, throughout the last 1500 years of Japanese history. Students will investigate the ways in which the religious lives of particular social groups have been influenced and shaped by these forms of art and entertainment to alter, direct, or stimulate notions of faith, morality, and identity. Examples of these forms of popular culture will include everything from ancient and medieval stories and poetry, to woodblock prints, Kabuki theater and Sumo, to festivals, fashion, technology, manga, and anime. Our investigation of Japanese popular culture will also compare its relation to both high, and folk culture, and how the boundaries of these three theoretical categories are often fluid and changing. Finally, through the study of both primary and secondary sources, students will deepen their understanding of Japanese religiosity and creativity, and its current influence on global consumption. General Studies Connections-Global-Humanities
REL 231/SOC 231
Cults and New Religious Movements
This course provides an opportunity for students to develop a general sociological understanding and perspective with which to evaluate, interpret and understand new religious movements, also known as “cults.” Topics investigated include the historical emergence of new religious movements, recruitment strategies and the use of violence. Several case studies are used throughout the course including: The People’s Temple, The Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, Montana Freemen, Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate and Chen Tao. General Studies Connections-Humanities.
Jesus in Literature and Film
The figure of Jesus of Nazareth is a fascinating one to believers and non-believers alike. However, the gospel accounts of his life and ministry leave many questions unanswered. The course explores some of the portrayals of Jesus in modern literature and film, sampling such artists as Nikos Kazantzakis and Pier Paolo Passolini. No prior knowledge of the New Testament is expected.
Sex, Gender, Bible
We have witnessed a revolution in understandings about and attitudes toward gender and sexuality in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, especially in the United States. With changing beliefs and practices, though, have come increased controversies, especially when these changes challenge traditional religions. The Bible is often at the center of these controversies, used by both sides of the debate to support various positions. Yet, what the Bible teaches about gender, sex, and sexuality is neither self-evident nor singular. This course will examine the biblical views on sex, male and female roles, and sexuality. It will examine the Hebrew Bible (aka Tanak or Old Testament) and the New Testament from historical and literary perspectives (especially feminist and queer interpretation), as well as how contemporary communities interpret the Bible in their understandings of sexual ethics and gender norms. General Studies Connections-Humanities
Monsters in the Bible
Religion and horror are inextricably bound. Monsters populate the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, as well as run rampant in the popular imagination. This course explores the inter-relatedness of the Bible and monsters through two primary questions: how do monsters function in sacred texts, and how does religion inform our monsters? The course also explores how monsters manifest the deepest fears and desires of the culture that produces them. General Studies Connections-Humanities
Apocalyptic literature focuses on end-of-the-world prophecies and symbolism and on themes of divine judgment and redemption from evil. This course looks at the nature of apocalyptic symbols and expectations and explores the reasons why apocalyptic literature has continued to be popular from the ancient Jewish and Christian worlds to modern times. Students are asked to reflect on its contemporary expression in religion, literature and film.
Italian Cinema and the Sacred
This course investigates the dimension of the sacred in Italian Cinema in its double aspect, both sacred and desecrated, according to the meaning of the word sacer, which in Latin means both “sacred” and “accursed.” We will watch and discuss the works of a range of Italian famous filmmakers (Rossellini, Pasolini, Ozpetek, Moretti, Fellini and Sorrentino) through the lens of the different visions of the sacred of thinkers and religion historians such as Mircea Eliade, Georges Bataille, Renèe Girard and others. The class includes both the viewing and discussion of each film to promote a deeper understanding and critique. The course will be conducted in English. Films will be in Italian with English subtitles. General Studies Connections-Global-Humanities
Judaism: Religion and Culture
Students are introduced to Jewish history, sacred texts, rituals, prayers, holidays and ethics. Judaism is explored in all its contemporary varieties among diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews. Emphasis is on integrating experiential learning and traditional readings.
Islam is often in the news. While media outlets often paint Islam as a violent religion, others defend it by calling it a religion of peace. This course moves beyond such simplifications to introduce students to Islam in some of its many contemporary and historical contexts. In addition, the course serves as an introduction to anthropological and historical methods in the field of religious studies by asking how those to disciplines approach the study of Islam. While students will learn about some of the key principles of Islam, they will also learn about the diversity in how Muslims experience and practice their tradition; explore the relationship between the concepts of religion and culture; and think critically about the history that often shapes American and European perceptions of Islam. GENERAL STUDIES CONNECTIONS-GLOBAL-HUMANITIES
Christianity After the New Testament: Romans or Rebels?
An examination of the formation of the Christian perspective after the New Testament until the end of late antiquity. The focus is on the diversity within these early Christian communities and the ways that various individuals within Christianity experienced what they saw as “new life” in Christ and deliverance from evil. In this way, we will explore the various ways in which different Christians imagined themselves as Romans, namely citizens of the empire and civic leaders of their communities, or as rebels resisting the oppressive force of empire. GENERAL STUDIES CONNECTIONS-HUMANITIES
The Buddha and His Teachings
This course will trace the life of the historical Buddha and how his teachings evolved in India following his death. It will trace the influence of the Buddha on the historical and philosophical development of the three traditional vehicles of Buddhism: disciples, enlightened beings, and the supernatural beings of tantric traditions. General Studies Foundations-Humanities
Buddhism Across Cultures
The course covers the history of Buddhist thought and practice as it evolved in India and then migrated to Southeast Asia, China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, and most recently to Europe and the United States. It begins with the historical Buddha’s life, his teachings and the competing schools of thought that dominated Northeastern India during his time. It continues through the foundations of Indian Buddhism after the Buddha’s death, including the early Buddhist schools, the development of the Mahayana, the great philosophers Nagarjuna and Vasubandu, and the emergence of Tantric forms of Buddhism. From the foundations of Indians Buddhism students examine how the religion was interpreted and expressed in its many cultural forms, such as Theravada, Dzogchen, Zen, T’ien Tai and Pureland. General Studies Connections-Global-Humanities
Religious Traditions in Latin America
This course examines the many religious traditions that co-exist in the diverse region we know as Latin America. Specifically, the course discusses Catholicism, including Liberation Theology, Indigenous religious traditions that have survived and African traditions that have continued to thrive throughout Latin America. The course emphasizes how these traditions often adapted and blended together to form what we know as syncretic traditions. Finally, the course examines the growing influence of Pentecostalism in Latin America.
Witches, Preachers and Mystics: US Relgious History, Pre-contact-1893
American religious history contains the stories of the many religious traditions that exist on American soil. It tells the stories of the thinker, the congregation, and the commune. It explores of the maintenance of tradition and the process of social experimentation. It asks how race, gender, wealth, poverty, environment, and migration shape all of those stories. Moving through US history until 1893, we will learn how scholars go about investigating the incredibly complex and diverse history of religions in the United States. One of our key strategies will be to use primary source documents to ask questions like: What has separation of church and state meant at different moments in US history? Where are the boundaries between religion and culture? What counts as a religious practice? What counts as a religion? How have the different religious traditions in the United States affected each other? How have religious and racial minorities faired in the American colonies and in the United States? How has gender shaped American religious experience? General Studies Connections Humanities
Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Atheists: US Religious History, 1859-the Present
American religious history contains the stories of the many religious traditions that exist on American soil. It tells the stories of the thinker, the congregation, and the commune. It explores of the maintenance of tradition and the process of social experimentation. It asks how race, gender, wealth, poverty, environment, and migration shape all of those stories. Moving through US history from the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species to the present, we will learn how scholars go about investigating the incredibly complex and diverse history of religions in the United States. One of our key strategies will be to use primary source documents to ask questions like: Where are the boundaries between religion and culture? What counts as a religious practice? What counts as a religion? How have the different religious traditions in the United States affected each other? How do religions intersect with social movements? This course satisfies the General Studies Connections-Humanities requirement and can be used by majors as a departmental elective.
Issues in Religion and Society
An exploration of areas in which religion has shaped the cultural values and social attitudes of the modern world. Topics vary from year to year, but include religion and the history of the family; religious perspectives on death and dying; religion and biomedical ethics; religion on race, class and gender; religion and political attitudes; religious nonconformity and social deviance; and so forth. Especially appropriate for third- and fourth-year students.
Religion at the Movies
Film is one of the great mythmaking forces of the twentieth century. This course focuses on how many contemporary popular films use religious images, motifs, and themes to embed a transcendent dimension in the viewing experience. Emphasis is placed on developing skills in viewing and evaluating films and discussing how films may create particular kinds of moral and spiritual responses in the viewing audience. General Studies Connections-Humanities.
Death and Dying
This course includes a number of dimensions in the study of death and dying. First, it explores how the major religions of the world understand and respond to the problem of death and dying, including the questions of afterlife, the meaning of salvation and the ritual participation in death and loss. Second, students discuss the human experience of dying and its effects on the dying patient, their families and the medical community. Third, students respond to the difficult ethical issues of death and dying, including patient’s rights, euthanasia, violence and capital punishment. General Studies Connections-Humanities.
Religion and the Environment
This course examines how the teachings and practices from various world religions have affected the human understanding of our relation with the natural world. It examines both the positive and negative impact of religious communities on ecological communities. In doing so, the course attempts to clarify to what extent, if any, we might turn to religious systems as a foundation for environmental stewardship.
Ritual in Latin America
This course examines the phenomena of ritual and festival by using case studies from Latin America. It examines first the linkages between religion and society, and then focuses on the symbolic action of ritual in order to learn how to “read” ritual action. Some of the rituals that are examined include: the peyote ritual in Northern Mexico; Christmas rituals and Day of the Dead, also in Mexico; the rituals of Vodun and Santeria that are practiced in Haiti and Cuba respectively; the Afro-Brazilian ritual of congado (the devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary); rituals to the ancestors in highland Bolivia; and others.
Yoga: Philosophy and Practice
This course offers an exploration of both the philosophy and practical application of yoga, one of the major systems of thought underlying the Hindu religion. Included is a study of the early Hindu investigation of ritual and freedom, the instruction of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, the royal yoga of Patanjali, and the Tantric systems of body-mind transformation. There will also be the opportunity to experience the actual practice of these disciplines with classes throughout the semester dedicated to meditation and Hatha yoga. General Studies Connections-Global-Humanities
Sociology of Religion
This course provides an opportunity for students to develop a general sociological understanding and perspective with which to evaluate, interpret, and understand religion and religious institutions. Topics investigated include: the role of belief, values and symbols; religious recruitment; how religious organizations are formed and maintained; the link between religion and social inequality; and how religion has changed and adapted in American culture. Various contemporary expressions of religion in the U.S. including cults, civil religion, fundamentalism and the commercialization of religion are also explored.
Religion & Popular Culture
How do popular culture and the mass media affect religion? Conversely, how does religion affect our popular culture and mass media? What are we to think of Christian forms of commercial entertainment like “religious rock music,” “Christian hip-hop,” and “Christian romance novels” or motion pictures? Several critics have pointed out that the industry that produces these things is nothing more than an attempt to make money off of religion. Others, feel that this industry provides an important role in maintaining and reinforcing religion by giving people what they want – religious commercial entertainment. This course provides an opportunity for students to explore the role religion plays in creating and maintaining culture through popular cultural expressions such as music, television, motion pictures, sports and fashion. They will also analyze how popular culture affects religion and how religion, in turn, affects popular culture and society.
Religious Responses to the Holocaust
Faced with the suffering and evil of the Holocaust, many have cried out, where was God? Others have responded, where was humanity? This course examines the challenge the Holocaust presents for both Christianity and Judaism. Each religious tradition has had to grapple with the question of theodicy (explanations for evil in the world). Students explore the wide-range of Christian theologies and Jewish responses to the Holocaust, from Hasidic folk tales to the more radical death-of-God theologies in both religious traditions. General Studies Connections-Humanities
Topics in Religious Studies
An in-depth investigation of a topic in religious studies. The content of this course will vary from year to year and span the broad spectrum of fields in religious studies-textual, historical, philosophical, ethical, and cultural. Possible topics include the life and letters of Paul and Asian sacred texts. Students will have the opportunity to explore and engage in scholarly debates. This course will also emphasize research and writing in religious studies, and is especially appropriate for religious studies concentrators, co-concentrators, and for third- and fourth-year students.
A seminar for concentrators and dual concentrators in religious studies that examines ways to integrate the different disciplines used in the study of religion around specific questions of religious belief, faith and practice. Participants engage in guided research and are expected to contribute to seminar presentations. Open to seniors and qualified juniors only.
At Albright, we consider student research to be an important complement to the religious studies curriculum. Albright religious studies faculty have diverse interests and are eager to work with you on any questions that stir your curiosity.
Through the Albright Creative and Research Experience (ACRE) program, students receive stipends and room and board to work with faculty on research projects of their choosing. Projects can be completed either during the summer (10 weeks) or the Interim (three weeks in January) terms.